Bite-sized Writing

Some people will be pleased to know I have just re-started my next book.   I have been labouring under a cloud of lethargy but at long last I have a bit between my teeth and am chewing over the smaller details.  For once I have drafted out cues for each section (a process I have NEVER done before)……sorry for shouting!…….  and intend to vaguely follow them to the end.    However I do have to admit that the actual journey to hit my cue-marks may be affected by some daunting (ie can I really be bothered!……..look, no shouting…..) research.

Some characters follow on from ‘Certain Trace’, the book (novella) I finished yonks ago.   Maybe this one will be as short so I can nail them together as the opposite of a spin-off character-led series.

In theory it covers  in more detail some of the events of  Veronique, Charlie and one or two others that you will not know unless you read ‘A Certain Trace’.    Unlikely as it has not yet been published.   I did put out a little sneaker section called ‘Extraction’ in  ‘wordparc’ some time ago.  I feel sure this character (Michael Wise, Captain…….or Major, as he became during World War 1 at Cambrai) will also appear as I got quite fond of him.

Word to the wise, or unwise!…… DO NOT GET TOO FOND OF YOUR CHARACTERS…… when you kill them off, it hurts!    Okay, no more shouting.

Who knows where the best laid plan may actually lead you, the writer.   That is part of the glory of being a writer, for me, that is: not quite in control.   I know where I want to go but the journey can be meandering.    Fascinating.

And I will have to stick some fingers into the lives of the Burnthorpe townies and assorted others in between, so words may not always add up!

Well, the future for me is research into all those already well-dug furrows from 1900 right up to today.  Tomorrow, too, knowing the rate at which I work.  Plus some red-hot pad-tapping hours as I intend to put down an average of two thousand words a day, starting May 1st.    A bold plan but required if I want to finish this short epic and a third that is fermenting gently.    Once again its on a set of characters from  ‘A Certain Trace’…….. Hence my thoughts about nailing these novellas together; resulting not so much in a daisy-chain novel as a dog-eared-daisy-of-an-epic-novel……

Now, where’s that dictionary; and my glasses!    Better make a cup of coffee first.   And find a couple of biscuits……..

 

 

 

 

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The Dead Line

                                     

It started with a short sentence.

“Can I speak to Angelo, please.”

I rarely get calls on my mobile, mostly wrong numbers. “ No-one here of that name, sorry.”  Was my simple reply and I may have caught an “Oh” as the line clicked off.

It was a pleasant voice, female, probably young; i.e. young enough to be a daughter, maybe even a granddaughter of mine.  If I had any.

I returned to wire brushing the cracks in the block paving on the drive.  A cross between a most thankless and satisfying task for a mildly OCD person.  That’s me, I suppose.  Not a hang-up, just an observation.

I was almost relieved to stop when the mobile rang again.

“Was this a wrong number or is it just that Angelo isn’t there?”   The same female voice, this time a little less chirpy,  anxious.

This is where another flaw emerged and I had to respond that  “I didn’t know if it was a wrong number but I did know that Angelo wasn’t with me.  Or had been.  He certainly wasn’t helping me weed the block paving!”

“Oh.”  This time the line didn’t go dead and I just stood there waiting, listening.

“They gave me this number.”

“My number or the wrong one?”

“This one.”

“Okay, maybe I asked the wrong question. Philip Marlowe I ain’t.”   I shouldn’t have said that out loud!

“Who?  No, it’s Angelo I wanted.”  She sounded hesitant.

I should have killed the call but she would probably have rung back to ask why.  I was also curious and felt like Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe in one of his smoke-filled bars or hotel rooms talking with a mystery caller.    Well, I had just finished reading an old Chandler paperback and despite my age can still empathise like a good-un.

“Can I help?”  Foolish, foolish! I thought, as I spoke.

“If he is not there, it might be too late when he gets back. Just tell him I rang and said I’m here.” Her voice choked, broken now.

Young or old, alarm bells still ring, maybe more so as time passes.  I went for alarm!

“Too late?  I can come over now, if it is important. Where are you?  It’s never too late to talk.  Just tell me where and I will drive straight to you.”    By now my heart was bumping a bit and I had dropped the wire-brushy thing and started to go back indoors.    And I never once considered that she could be literally anywhere in the world.

“I’m at the station.”

“Which station?  Where?”

“Burnthorpe.  Railway.   There’s a train coming….”  She was almost screaming at the noise.

“No! Wait!” I shouted into the phone. I heard the roar of the train as it sped through.  I could imagine the blur and rush as the noise of the express shattered through the phone and the single tone followed disconnection.  I can hear it now, it’s a sort of tinnitus, an electronic whistle embedded in my brain that creeps out as a reminder in the dark.  I think I got myself into a panic.

And where was Burnthorpe?  I hadn’t heard of it.  It wasn’t local as far as I knew.  And I stood there with that damned whistling in my ear even when I looked and saw the red blob with ‘call ended’ on it.

Search engines on phones do have their uses.  My head cleared as I found Burnthorpe, a couple of hours drive away.  Or I could just ring the station.  And say what?  What would I want to hear?  Chances are they wouldn’t even talk to me, a strange man asking questions about a brief phone call, and that a wrong number and maybe a……?     I could pretend to be a journalist, or just nosey.

Burnthorpe rang a tiny bell.  All I knew about it was I had never been there, must have buried the name in some odd recess.

I live in a bit of a mess but sometimes I get that disconcerting enthusiasm to do something.  Finish tidying the office.  Write another chapter.  Well, rarely these days.  Finding something new to say about Enclosures means research, which I no longer have the patience for and ‘retired’ means I can’t cajole students into the subject.  It’s prime-time social upheaval but the glamour seems to have moved back to the ‘Dark Ages’.  Even that term is antiquated now!

But after that lost voice, those few seconds, I felt an almost alarming need to know.  It was quite odd to get that feeling from so long ago.  Maybe it was just the chance timing in the middle of a boring day for a bored old man.  I can say that but not you.  I say I am early-retired but truth be known I’m just a casualty of the cost-cutting, course cutting, redundancy-band of nearly sixty year-old university drones.     I might have gone a few years earlier but survived.  Having said that maybe I should have left five years earlier and got a big payout instead of a few quid extra on my pension.

Oddly, some of that actually drifted through my mind as I shoved the tablet and charger into my rucksack, checked wallet for cash and cards and headed for the door.  Bag on shoulder, glasses on nose and keys in hand I stood for a peremptory glance round the hallway before turning and shutting the door behind me.

I was sitting in the car, engine running in quick-time.  I sat there and realised I did know what I was doing and it was almost exhilarating.  I was off on a goose-chase, I told myself, but the woman’s voice echoed through the background tinnitus.     Maybe I was caught in my own web of fantasy, swapping village labourers for my other passions; pulp crime fiction, Philip Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart and gritty films.   Yes, I still have my childhood tucked away safely and it   escaped.  There I was, about to drive into the unknown, for no real reason.  So I did.

…………………………

What did we do before navigation-apps?  Now I stick in the post-code and hope for the best.  I followed the little blue arrow on my phone and the attentive instructions about roundabouts and exits for an hour or so.  After that I was offered a route that was quicker round congested traffic and I entered a world of ‘lost’ single-track lanes that criss-crossed bigger roads for no apparent reason until I was instructed to turn left onto a busy dual carriageway.  Within a hundred metres I was filtered off again and  driving alongside a small Industrial park which switched to a smaller retail park and finally a railway station.  Having ‘reached your destination’ I parked in an all too convenient parking space beside a police car.

 

Well, I had arrived.  One option would be to drive home immediately.  The police car seemed an ominous sign.  I unhooked my phone and slipped it into the jacket’s inside pocket.  Unclipped the seatbelt, opened the door and swivelled round.  At least I could wander around, looking casual, I thought.  Got out, straightened up, stiffly.  Saw a coffee shop opposite and went in to order a cup and find a toilet.  Why do you so rarely find a toilet in books? On Tele  yes, quite important in some series.   Relieved, coffee before me, I sat looking out at the police car.

“Do they just park there all day?”  I spoke to the barista clearing the next table.  He followed my gaze to the police car.

“Nah, must be somethin’ up.  If they park there they come in for a coffee and a pee.  Not today. Not yet, anyhow.”  He finished stacking the tray,  “Been there an hour. Another one came and went again.   Another barista nipped out through the swing door and returned having collected from other tables.

I sat there, fingers clasping the huge mug of coffee.  Luckily it was cooler by now.  I hadn’t hurried to drink it.  I was still in adventure mode but had no idea what to do so sat, a figure of indecision.

Oddly satisfying it was too.   Two minutes later and a line of customers came in. They arrived as commuters and called in for assorted coffees and balms and sat at most of the tables around me.

Two policemen and a woman crossed over the road.  I watched them approach.   It was odd that I should recognise one of them.  I thought. I shuffled down into my jacket even though it hid nothing more than my tie-less collar.

In uniform, the older man joined the queue. The others looked round the busy room and made a bee line for my table.  I felt my face redden as they asked “can we sit?”

“Sure.”

Sitting, they spoke casually about how long before shift ended and lack of plans for the evening.  Mind you they finished at 10 p.m., so little time for much as far as I was concerned.

It was then I realised what the time was.  And here I was, in a market town in the middle of nowhere, just about to be recognised by an old rival.  Old friend. Once, briefly.  And it was getting dark soon. Two hours from home via piddling little lanes that I really didn’t want to drive through again in the dark.

“Of all…”. He started as he reached the table.  Carefully placed the tray of coffees and continued staring, interrogating my face.

“……the bars, in all the world…..” Bogarts voice crawled through my head.

“ …. people, I would never have thought to see you here.”    He pulled his head back slightly as if getting a different perspective on the man who stole his girlfriend.   “It is Harry, isn’t it?”

He leaned forward again and shot a hand out stopping a few inches away from my nose.

“Long time eh?  Haven’t seen you for years. What twelve, fifteen?  Not since you walked off with my girlfriend.  Guys,” he moved his outstretched hand as introduction to his two companions.

“Meet Harry.  This is d.c. Maitland, referring to the woman and  sergeant Weatherly.”   His hand veered back to my nose. I took it and we shook.  He, firmly, and I surprisedly.  He continued speaking, “ Harry.  Harry Leem!  Fancy.” He sat and I still couldn’t figure his mood with me.  Time heals, I hoped. It looked like he had moved up if not on.   It was sixteen years, actually, and she used me as an excuse to walk away from him, Walter, like she used Richard to leave me a couple of months after that.

He had just become a sergeant and was stationed in Sheffield where we met.  He was on the course and I was the lecturer.  I would socialise with students in those days, a legacy of the eighties partying and got to know him as part of the group.

So here we were, me a redundant lecturer, failed author, sitting opposite a very braided police officer from whom I had stolen a woman he no doubt loved very much.  All because I worried about a phone call.  I wondered if he still read Chandler or rather today’s crowding list of authors; knowing mine wouldn’t be one of them.

“Don’t mind them,” he said, “are you here for a while or waiting for a train to somewhere?”

“I’m in the car.”   ‘Train to nowhere‘  zipped through my brain.  As Walter seemed quite relaxed at seeing me I dived in, “Actually, I might be here on a whim or an odd coincidence.  Listen.”   It was like old times.  Me, a lecturer with ideas,  wishing I was different, talking to someone who was good at listening and maybe interested too.   I told him my story.   It was brief but as I began the other two listened in silence.

“Are you sure she said Angelo?”  Walter spoke as seriously as he had listened.

“Yes” I couldn’t say more.

Can I have your phone, please?”

I automatically dug it out and passed it to him. He handed it to the policewoman.

“And can you confirm the time of the phone call?”

“About three this afternoon.” I hazarded.

“It will be on the log.” She said, “what’s the log-in?”

I told her. She checked it. “ 15.08 then 15.11. So the train you heard was the 15.11 express.”

“What happened?”  They had said nothing so far, “Is she?  Did she….? You know.”

The detective looked at the older policeman. He spoke, “ You are a potential witness. We will have to check your story, your alibi, if you like.  But I can say nothing seems to have happened.  Except she seems to have disappeared, maybe. Your story, the phone call, just happens to muddy the water.  Strictly speaking we have no reason to be concerned as she is an adult.  The problem is that her mobile is now disconnected and she was due to meet someone at this station. We know she arrived and waited and then was gone. The person she was to meet reported her missing.”  He looked at the detective.

“We need you to remain in Burnthorpe so we can interview and take a statement.”

“Why not now, I should be going home.  It’s late.”

“As it’s late it would be sensible to stay here in Burnthorpe.  They’re bound to have a room at the hotel round the corner. The Lazydaze Hotel.”

Did they expect a challenge?  It was too late to do otherwise.  I had no change of clothes but could buy clean from the store on the opposite corner; said Walter.  He ordered more coffees while I nipped to the store. The detective, Winnie, I was informed, would book me a room. The sargeant was posted back to the station and end of shift.

When I returned with my new boxers and shirt (forgot the socks!),  Walter was alone at the table with his and my cold coffees.  The police car had gone.  Chief Inspector Walter Copper invited himself to my car and the hotel.  Then booked and bought us an early meal where we picked our way through our last couple of meetings when he lost and I gained a girlfriend.     I muttered about being sorry and that she left me too, very quickly.  Once we found agreement that we had both lost and maybe he had made a better fist of life than me, we fell into a nostalgic conversation of catch-up of common interests.  Until I cracked:

“Off the record,” I finally asked, “Is there a problem for this woman? Who is she?”

“It might be in the paper tomorrow anyway, so maybe I can let slip a little.”

I instinctively leaned forward and Walter mirrored the movement.

“We don’t know any more than you have just told us.”  He leaned back, almost smiling, briefly.  “We just came in for a coffee break and a two-minute briefing after I got off the Leeds train”

I just felt stupid. “But you came straight over to me.”

“Because I recognised you and you were looking at me.”  He went serious again, “You might have been here about Ann.  I know she works on your patch.”

I didn’t.  I had just told him where I had driven up from but it sounded like he knew I hadn’t moved since those last meetings.  “Is she still in the force?”

“Yes. Married, kids, divorced; the whole lot but still in Sheffield and a D.I.”

“You?”

“The same.  Married, kids, divorced and still living here.  Burnthorpe has you by the throat, no escape.  Your turn, Harry.”

“You recall I was divorced back then.  Sorry about Ann, we should never have gone off like that.”  I did feel he deserved an actual apology albeit years too late.  I paused, maybe too long.   “Still single, no kids, out of work.   Well, redundant and early-retired but it doesn’t make it any better.”   I stopped. I pulled us back to my reason for being in Burnthorpe.

“So why am I still here?  Apart from trying not to talk about old times?  You wouldn’t book me in here for no reason.”   I looked round the sparse tables and furnishings, “Unless it’s revenge.”

“We need to check your phone; her call.  If we find her mobile it might help.  ‘Angelo’ is a new name.  As I said, she just seems to have disappeared. On the platform as the train arrives, then gone.  Maybe Angelo is a lead.  Her friend got off the train and but no one to meet her.”

He hadn’t given me any names. It made it hard to imagine.  “Do they have names, the women? It might help.”   I started to think they were A and B but that old memory of Ann stepped in.

I continued; “The train.  It was an express. On the phone it was obviously not stopping.  Too fast and getting louder.  That was when the signal just cut into a disconnected whistle.”  I found myself thinking almost logically. The first time maybe for some months.  “That’s why it got to me!  I was worried it was a suicide.  Maybe me and a wrong number, being casually rude was too much. “

Walter was listening without interrupting the pauses.

“Was there an express?  Maybe she threw the phone onto the tracks. Or at the train? In front of it, whatever.  Perhaps it was a stranger, a mugger.  That would be why it disconnected.    Is that the answer?  But why vanish?”

Walter took his mobile out.. tapped numbers and spoke into it:    “It wasn’t the 15.11 express, that stopped at the station.  It was the one on the ‘through’ track.  It was late and must have been just ahead of the stopper.  Talk to the drivers of both trains.  Get lights on the track and search for the mobile. Or bits of one.”    He listened while it was repeated back.  “And don’t forget to stop the bloody trains in both directions!”

“Thank you, Harry.”    He pocketed his phone.  “Timing, eh.  Bloody timing.”

I was feeling bolder, “What about CCTV?”

“None available.”  He shook his head pensively.  “What was that course we met on?  I just remember an arrogant bastard hitting on my girlfriend.”

“We were friends a few months before that.  But the lecture was ‘Social Unrest in the 18th and 19th Centuries’. Which was me.  And I sat in with you for the two on ‘Victorian Morality and the Police’ and ‘Forensic Evidence; collection and presentation.”  I felt no pleasure in that particular feat of memory.

“That was when you got bored and wormed you way between me and Ann”

Not something I could deny.  I was into the social side; forensics was much too niche for me,  Ann was much more interesting.

“Should I apologise again?”

“No; Walter under the bridge!”  He raised his whisky, drank and said he should go and that I should report to the station before ten next morning.

Was that a joke, I wondered as he walked out of the bar with a brief wave.  No handshake but then we were still a little wary of each other.

…………………….

It was a warm morning, the sun was up but looking soft at the edges, like it was hungover.

It was a fair distance walking to the police station from the Lazydaze Hotel and the freshness of my new clothes was worn off when I arrived that next morning and asked for Walter Copper.

“Chief Inspector.” I was advised and directed upstairs, “second passage on the left and check with his P.A.”

“P.A.?” I thought as I walked the lavender corridors.

It wasn’t so much a corridor that I turned into, more an alcove with a desk jutting out.  The placement, and the man behind it, seemed purely to obstruct entrance to the office door at his back.  I could read ‘C.I. W. Copper’; black on white in its frame on the wall.

“Harry Leem,” I began but stopped as the young man silently pointed fist and cocked thumb backwards over his shoulder towards the door.

“Go in, he’ll be with you in a minute.” He didn’t take his eyes off the small screen with its flashing colours under his other hand. “Yess!” He said under his breath.

I stepped sideways  between desk and wall then opened the door and entered.  More like a cupboard than an office.  Or a cell.  A high window, darker lavender walls, a small desk with an old p.c., plus notebook and pencils that filled the desk-top. There was a comfortable high-backed swivel chair with just enough room to swivel and a set of floor-to-eye shelves.  Some books, some momentos of ‘whatevers’ and six cards displayed on its top shelf.

‘Congratulations on your retirement!’  Said one. Others were more in the current taste of stills from old films with new words.  One caught my eye.  It was Humphrey Bogart towing the ‘African Queen’, up to his knees in water, looking knackered and the card read:  ‘I thought they said Cruise, not Crews.’    Philip Marlowe would have put it better.

The door opened. Walter peered in, jerked his head as he said, “Come on let’s get out of here.” I followed his sidling between wall and P.A. desk.

We walked briskly, he was used to striding, I had forgotten how and the memory didn’t want to return.

“We’ll go to the pub.”  He announced.

The walk was threatening to send me to hospital but we arrived at some bulging windows of a cream painted building on a corner in the old part of town.  An old wooden linteled  door. The building fronted the main road and round the corner,  sloping up the side-street.  We ducked our way in, a shabby table-high shelf to our immediate left with a biggish black book sitting on it.  Matt black and shabby to match the stained oak of the wall behind it.  It was like the shortest hall-way ever. You expected a second door but it never existed.  Two steps and we were in an old fashioned, stone slabbed bar with another bar to the side. Once there was a wall between but this was now a much more open view where the lath and plaster had been removed leaving the ‘renovated, polished’ beams in their original upright and angled positions.

‘Hi Walter!’  The woman called out as they entered, “Same as?”

“Just a coffee and…” I agreed to one too,  “And another.  Americano.”

She brought the coffees on a tray.  I had to watch as she walked across the bar, I’m old enough to know much better.  But then maybe not.  Obviously mature but a lot younger than me, us. Casually curling golden hair, framing her round and flawless face with a smile and twinkling eyes to catch anyone’s breath.  I noticed she was quite tall and her rounded hips balanced perfectly between length of leg and body.  The gently tailored dress and half-scooped neckline suggested equal perfection underneath.   Not a mood I catch myself in very often these days.  Too many students acting like waifs or mannequins took the edge off.  Plus a few brief couplings and goodbyes that weighed me down.  And at the back of it was still Ann.

I watched as she walked to the coffee machine and back.

She returned with a cafetière and mug for herself and sat with us.

“This is Angel,” Walter introduced her.  She held out her hand, I took it.

“And you are?” She asked, our hands still.

“Harry.  Harry Leem.”

“Harry,” she said thoughtfully as if committing the name to memory.  Her hand firmed with mine and she smiled right into me.  Hands parted, I watched her carefully plunge the cafetière.

“Coincidentally,” Walter started the conversation,  “Do you know anyone called Angelo?  Or maybe talking about someone with that name?”

She stopped pouring into a half-filled mug and put the cafetiere down. Looked up.

“Who is missing?  It was all the talk here last night.  I gather it’s a woman.  She must have a name, is she local?”   It sounded false, more guarded than interested.

“This has to be off the record.  Today is my last day, after tonight I am off the job.  They tried to kick me off today, the D.C.I. In no uncertain terms.”

“Winnie put him straight?” she said it without a smile

“Partly.” He looked briefly at me then back to Angel.  “Harry might be a witness so I’m on babysitting duty.  We don’t know if there is a mystery yet.  It might be that someone dropped their phone and stormed off.”

“Did you find the phone?” I had to ask him.

“Yes.  You were right.  It must have hit the first ‘through’ train and we found it, or the bigger bit at least.  With the SIM card.  They were testing it when we left. dropped or thrown, or by who, we don’t know.”

Thankfully I’m not a grammar-tart!

“Her name? And the friend meeting her, you said.”  Angel encouraged an answer.

“The missing woman is Adriana.  The friend on the train was  a contact rather than a friend.  She had come from Leeds to meet Adriana. They had never met and she had only spoken on the phone and no photograph.  She knew her name, that she had long black hair, thirty years old and wanted to escape an abusive partner.  To hide.  A woman called Nira was to meet Adriana at the station.   Nira may have had their tickets for the next train journey so no trace of where to would be found.”

“So Angelo is the man she is running from?”  I assumed.

“Yes, it seems so.” Walter agreed, “But Nira seems to know nothing more.  Harry’s accidental contact seems to firm-up the man’s name as Angelo but nothing else.  Hopefully the sim will give more.  Ideally the Contacts List will have full details of both.”

On hearing the name ‘Nira’ I noticed Angel’s eyes tighten a little and look away briefly.

She looked back at me, “And you drove here just on a wrong number?”

“The way it disconnected worried me.  And her voice was odd.  No accent but something seemed wrong.”

“Are you police too, ex police?”

“No,” I had to smile at that suggestion, “Ex rubbish lecturer in Social History mainly 18th and 19th Century”

“Oh,” she smiled quite sweetly but obviously no convert to the subject.

“Don’t put yourself down like that.” Walter stepped in, “you were good at stealing girl friends!”

“Ah.”  I had no more response than that.

She leaned across and patted my knee. “It must have been years ago, though.  He doesn’t hold grudges forever.  Well not many.”   This didn’t really help. I drank some coffee.

As I sipped at the hot drink I realised that his reaction was more like before the  messy collapse of our friendship.

Back to Nira, Adriana and Angelo.

“Has Nira gone back to Leeds?” Angel asked.

“Yes”

“Could Adriana have been asking for Angel rather than Angelo?”  I tossed a random thought.

“Why?”  She spoke and looked at me a little too sharply.

“I have no idea, just a question. Did you know Nira even if you didn’t know Adriana?  Is your mobile number similar to mine and or Angelo?  Is there any connection between Burnthorpe and Leeds regarding safe houses?  Which this seems to mean. Was Adriana really running from abuse or was it cartels or even the police? Did Nira actually hear Adriana naming this Angelo?  Is it just assumption because she said his name to me?”   I realised I was mouthing off a bit.  Musing out loud more than I should.  I hoped we would survive this interrogation when I had known her for a mere twenty minutes.  Let alone mending a fractured friendship with a retiring police officer.

I stopped.  We looked one to the other, conversation blunted.  “Oh Hell!” I thought out loud again. “Probably her partners name. Maybe she is Italian, he could be too.”   I tried to back-track.

I looked at the menu board propped on the wall waiting to be put outside.

The header was the pub’s name:  ‘The Jolly Puritan’    We were anything but that. I wanted to go home.

“The old vicarage.”  She spoke as if forced.  We looked blankly, waiting for more.  “Dad bought the old vicarage when they put the three churches into a pool. You know, a team approach going the rounds. They sold off our vicarage and spare land from the other two. Dad retired. Then he died.” She stopped and looked over to Walter. He nodded slightly in remembrance.

It meant nothing to me, I just waited.

“And?” The bar seemed surprisingly quiet as we sat there. Walter prised quietly.

“Nira didn’t have any tickets.”  Pause.  “It’s only up the road from here.”   She stood and casually pressed  down the creases from her waist.  I sat, quietly numbed, waiting for a dramatic announcement.

“It’s a safe-house.”  She started to place the mugs and cafetière on the tray and carried it to the back of the bar.    “Any more coffee?”    We both shook our heads.

“We can have three people max.. women, girls, and any children.  More would fit in the house but people might notice too many. “  she spoke with her back to us.  Turning, continued;   “I don’t know about the mobile numbers, we should check.  Or the name Adriana is running from.  But yes; she would have been given my number as emergency contact. And the name.”

“It’s you.  You would answer to Angelo.  Near enough your real name.”

“But she wouldn’t know I was a woman.” She leaned on the bar. “A little bit of security, we thought.  Three years and nothing has gone wrong.  Meeting at the station,  both by train then a taxi to the house.  I ring Madelie and she collects them and back to the vicarage.  Nira just keeps an eye on her.  On the train to the station.

Walter spoke. “I am an old friend, you and I.   For years, you know what I know.”  He rubbed a smear of coffee on the table.  “Why not even a hint? And I am police, for goodness sake!”  He shook his head.  “You said nothing yesterday!” his voice full of exasperation.

A deep sigh and, “Because you are Police!”  She stood erect.  “ You never said ‘Nira’.  I didn’t know she, they, were coming.  I just react to a phone call.  Some of these women have nothing.  Literally nothing, especially trust.  Especially trust in men.  Yes, especially!”  Attack was the best form of defence, she seemed to have decided.

“You could have trusted me, even so.”

Angel switched her gaze from Walter to me.  We briefly held eyes before I bowed away.  At which she moved to the coffee machine, “I need another anyway.”

In the quiet Walter resumed his thinking out loud

“So, we can check your two numbers to see if they are close enough for a mis-dial.  That would cover that point.  It explains why she, Adriana, was at the station. Partly the phone but not her actual disappearance.  Did she run from someone?  Did he, or they, force her or was she willing?        The upshot is, she is missing, she has to be found.”   He was interrupted by an old cartoon ringtone. His phone.

“It’s loud so I hear it in all weathers,” he passed it off as an explanation then listened with infrequent “yup”.    Finished, phone back in pocket.

“It’s her SIM, we opened it.  Lucky for us she’d no idea of security.”  He continued, “ It had a tracking app on it.  She could have been followed.  Contacts include her own, and yours, or Angelo; we can check the number with yours.  And we seem to have a selfie or two.”

Angel brought her new coffee to the table.  Walter’s phone bleeped cheerfully again and he retrieved it.   Angel peered over to see its screen.

“That must be her.  No wonder she is running scared.” he said.

I looked across at the picture on the screen to see a young woman with long black hair and a worryingly swollen eye with massive black bruising and a cheek  that was just shining into deep purple with yellow outer edges.

Angel grabbed at my arm. “When was that? The date?”

“Three days ago.”  He scrolled down to more text. “ He left her messages but they haven’t sent them on.  His last one was 11. O5.  Just before she phoned you, as Angelo. “

“Is his picture there?” I asked.

“No. We are getting his details off his mobile account and trying for his current location.”

“Can you find where he was on his 11.05 text?”  Me again. Angel’s grip was beginning to hurt.

It suddenly felt incongruous.  Me, sitting in a pub with an old ex-maybe-friend and a woman I should have felt so much less for after only half an hour; and talking pseudo forensics with the almost retired policeman about abused women and maybe abduction or worse.   As they say, twenty four hours ago I was at home, bored.  Now I just wanted to get out and find that woman.  I had forgotten what adrenaline was like.  But then I rarely knew anyway.  Now I felt it, I wanted more.

Walter got his notebook out and wrote the number she had rung for Angelo.  It was my number. No surprise in the end.  We checked Angel’s number and the last six digits were the same as mine, as were the codes.  No!  Adriana had transposed numbers into my carrier’s when putting them into her contact list.  A simple mistake but it might have been her last.

He was on his phone, “ Get that search organised. From the railway station outwards. Circulate her photo.  Treat it as a suspicious action. We don’t know if it is abduction. Yet.”   He looked towards me, “ I will drop you at the hotel.  You can leave Burnthorpe if you like  but I might need to call you back. We haven’t done that statement yet.”  He stood. “Thanks Angel. I aim to forget about the Vicarage. You too.”  He looked at me.  I nodded.  “I have to rush.”

“I can make my own way to the hotel,” I thought it would speed him along.

“I can take Harry in five minutes.” Angel said quickly

“Whichever, I must go.”  He said and collected his hat, becoming the real policeman again. “I’m off. We’ll find her, Angel, we’ll find her.”     He ducked through the low doorway and must have knocked the Bible off the shelf.

Saying nothing, Angel glided to retrieve and replace the Bible.

She went behind the bar and explained that someone was due to start a shift and she could slip away for half an hour.  Plenty of time to drop me at the hotel.

I just shrugged and agreed to wait.  It wasn’t long before a young lad came in.  Following a brief conversation with Angel he settled both arms to rest on the bar, phone in hands and thumbs jabbing.

“Come on then,” to me as she whisked out via the gap behind the bar. I had to jump up and scramble through; following into and out of a kitchen, a final back-room and lastly a huge old door that opened onto a square yard and the brightest of sunlight.

“She handled the car like a pro; almost as good as I handle whisky”.  I rehearsed the line a few times as Marlowe came to my rescue while we dodged round the traffic and corners.   Had we been chased we would never had been caught.  We slammed into a parking space and the jolt matched the squeal of tyres.

“You can relax now.” She smiled as she looked to me, and twisted to get out of the car.

She was half way up the steps to the hotel as I managed to uncurl from the low-seat and straighten up.  I watched her moving up the steps and tried to choke Bogart’s voice before  I heard him say through gritted teeth “There’s a chassis to sashe with!”    Note to self: cut out reading Chandler.

Angel watched me approach the reception desk.

“If you’re staying in Burnthorpe your welcome to stay at mine until this is sorted.”

“At the pub?”

“The Vicarage.”  She continued, “There’s a spare room, if you want it.”  No signs, just a straight offer.  It made it easier to agree.

“You wait here, I’ll pay the bill then get my bags.”  I should have said rucksack, with its two unwashed items from yesterday but it’s only a habit. I had binned the carrier.

I went to the lift, she chose to wait in the bar.

It only took seconds to stuff shirt and boxers into the bag.  An automatic check round the room proved I had nothing to leave there. The sun flicked through the windows and off the mirror, catching my eye.  I am not one for bright sunlight so I turned my head a little.  Bad move. I saw myself in the mirror.

Three days since I shaved.  At least I had showered but the brown stubble I expected had patched into a thicker layer of grey bristles.  Not enough to be trendy but plentiful if you need to look gaunt, old and weary.  I must have lost weight as the creases down my jawbone sagged through the stubble.  “No wonder she offered me a room, I look homeless and friendless.”

I stopped the cynical voice before it started.   ‘And here I am with just an overused rucksack to my name’.  Excluding the car in the car park it was pretty accurate, actually.

The sun flashed into my eyes again. Stopped, flashed and stopped. Annoying.

Marlowe muttered something about reflections and mirrors and cuties.    I looked out the window.  It was not a pretty sight.  The railway lines ran a stones throw away.  You couldn’t see the station despite it being as close as a hundred metres.  Looking towards it I could see the signal lamps over each set of tracks fixed to the gantry above sets of points for switching lines.

I put a nose to the glass and looked out at the shabby building trackside.  You don’t see many of them nowadays.  An old signal box.   I couldn’t see inside, it’s windows almost one floor lower than my view and mostly greyed with dirt and rain from years of neglect.  I imagined it when it was a vital tool of the railways.  It would have been pristine cream with unbroken ornate eaves.  A  balcony with paling fencing, entered onto via a multipaned door.   That was my nostalgia kicking in.  In reality it was a near black ruin with its doorway jammed shut by an old wheelbarrow.  The sun seemed to reflect briefly off a corner pane.   Bogart would not be amused by this,  I turned to find an Angel; much more his style……

She was at the bar talking to the young man laying out beer mats.  She thanked him when I arrived at her shoulder.  She had been showing Adriana’s picture on her mobile.

“He’s not seen her.  Not seen any particularly odd blokes either.”

“How do you recognise odd?”

“Don’t worry, he would.  He pointed you out.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Guess I’ll go and search then. Coming?”

I followed her lead outside.

“How do you know Walter then?  He just said it was from a long time ago.”

I was tempted to ask the same question of her.  “He was on a course and I was a young lecturer. We got on well.  That’s it. Typical lads.  Went our own ways and now meet again, must be twenty years.”   She got my short version. “You?”

“I was a kid and he sorted a boyfriend out for me.  I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since. If he was a bit younger….or I was a bit different.”

We were walking to the back of the hotel, nettles and weeds aplenty.

She spoke again,” He said you ‘snuck off’ with his girl.“  Angel smiled at the words.

In front of us was the chainlink fence running along the tracks.

“I reckon they will start at the station soon.  We can start here and work towards the platform.”

Okay, this was where my affinity with Chandler thinned a bit.  I didn’t fancy climbing the fencing when the police would get there eventually.  She saw me looking at the barbed wire curled along the top in all directions.  Moving closer to the fence she scuffed down the weeds near a concrete post.  “Come on then!”

I approached and she somehow unhooked the fence and raised it like a curtain.  I foolishly started forward to help, got stung by nettles and accidentally leaned into her.  I felt myself blush as I regained my balance.  Obviously I had been entirely deserted by any of the suave cops I used to read.  Still, it is a memory I find quite easy to remember.  I was unsure of the look she gave me.  Our faces so close, briefly.  I just remember her eyes as we pressed together.

No words as I crouched under the raised fencing then held it up for Angel.

“We can’t just walk along the track!”

She nudged me and suggested we walk beside the track, because of the trains!  Towards the station.  I could stay this side and she would run over the tracks to the other side.  With that she was gone.

I didn’t think, I just followed her, jumping across those glistening tops of rails.  Eight rails and I am not very elegant, or, rather, athletic.   We must have both been mad.  At least she had looked, I just ran.  She shook her head at me as I arrived by her side.  Saying nothing.

We had our backs to that old signal box.  My mind slunk back to my eight-year-old self, “Let’s look at the signal box.”  I would love to get inside and see if the levers were still there, maybe they still pulled!  I wasn’t put off by another withering look.

Surprisingly, Angel followed me along the wall and round to the jammed door.

“Watch out for trains,” I was now aware how dangerous it was.

“Half an hour,” she said, “before the next one. “But it will be this track.”

We looked at the upturned wheelbarrow, rotted and stained but still solid enough to be jammed under the brass door handle.  It could have been there for years, since it closed.  I looked up to work out which hotel window I had looked out of, counting along.  The sun was high over the hotel and hitting the box’s windows.  I recalled the reflection into my room.   What if?   I looked at the barrow and it was firmly fixed at the top although on the ground there were long scraped strips of fresh soil at each handle.

“That looks quite recent.”  I thought out loud. “Maybe it wasn’t reflection.”

It was all too easy.  Move the wheelbarrow.  Pull the door open.  Angel was in the gap first and calling.  Muted response but someone, female, scared.

………………………

We looked before we crossed the tracks this time although aware we should have plenty of time.   Three of us scurried under the fence.  Angel had an arm round the dishevelled woman, guiding her back to the hotel entrance and hurried her to the bar area and into an armchair.

“You phone Walter,” she said. I didn’t have his number so she handed me her phone.

She was talking to the woman, Adriana, while I spoke to Walter.   He said he would come at once. I heard him shout to call off the search, then back to me to say, “I’m on my way.”

……………..

Walter arrived in short time, accompanied by d.s Winnie Maitland.   She went to the woman’s side and Walter to mine.

“Winnie can do the interview and put a call out on the bloke.” …. Assuming he was involved etcetera..  “how come you found her?”

I explained that Angel insisted on looking over the lines and I headed for the signal box for no very good reason.   Noticing the marks on the ground was key, I suppose.  Myself, I liked to think Adriana had been signalling me.  Somehow getting the reflection in my eyes.  Quite a classy thing to do.  A real storybook escape.  Maybe as good as any 40’s film, even of ’39 Steps’, standard.

We sat around.  Coffee appeared via Angel’s organisation.  She stayed with Adriana who spoke with detective Maitland.  Some time passed while I pumped yet another coffee from the urn they had brought out. then picked out a few biscuits and sat restlessly again.   I am not good at waiting.   More time.

Eventually Angel came over and said she could take Adriana to the Vicarage now but I would have to give them a couple of hours to settle.

“No problem”, was Walter’s quick response, “We can go to the station and take that statement.”

That was settled, then.

I had to tell my story to a different police woman.  Walter claimed he was actually retired now the woman was found. The detective I spoke to was going to follow it up, if there was anything to follow, that is, or was!    I think my tenses are somewhat confused now.

Anyway, it took a while. I just gave the salient details.  Basically the original phone call, meeting people and then the lucky search with Angel over the railway line.  I mentioned the possible signalling I saw from my window, just to add a little flavour to the story.  Without that it all sounded rather mundane, no hint of the ‘film noir’ that was in my mind.

Eventually we all ran out of conversation at the police station.  The few chairs that were filled had people staring at their computer screens and playing with keys or mice.  I was shown the canteen and waited for Walter to re-appear.

He turned up two more coffees later.

“Well, at least we know most of the story.”

“Here it comes”, I thought, “the denouement.”   I rested my chin on my hands and leaned forward across the table.  The eco-lights above my head not quite the spotlit shaft off Maigret’s  desk that would have been pointing directly into any visitors chair.   Where was the smell and blue gasping haze of Gaulouse cigarettes?  Or was it cigars? Pipe?    Walter sat opposite. No pipe. Large fingers and knuckles clasped lightly on the table.  He moved to stir his mug of tea; not a sign of nicotine or bruised knuckles.    “Perhaps I really should stop living in crime novels,” I thought, yet again.

“Is it finished?”  I said flatly.   Fool that I am!

“No, but I am. I am now officially off the case.  Any case, for that matter.  I am now one hundred percent retired.”   He picked up the mug and drank as though it was his favourite beer.

“Let me take you to Angel’s.  The Old Vicarage.  She will be waiting.  You can decide if you are staying the night.  Unless you want a night-drive”  More rhetoric than actual question.

Whose car was I in?  I had to re-run the day to realise it was mine.  Walter directed me the short distance to the Vicarage.  A large house set back off a dead-end road, not rambling but a bit mis-sharpen with age  and a few angled beams visible on the upper storey.  Deep eaves under a steep roof.  I could just see the roof tiles were layered in a two-tone zig-zag of red and orange.  Elizabethan or just mad builder?  Lights on behind drawn curtains.  Up the stepped path to the trellis presiding round the front door.  It opened.  Angel kissed Walter and let him in.  Ditto me.

Shortly after we were all seated in a big room filled with one settee and assorted armchairs, some of which were covered with fleece blankets.  Very much a room to relax and be comfortable in.  You could understand how frightened women, and children, could begin to feel safe.

We sat, Walter, myself, Angel and the newly rescued Adriana, plus the finely sculpted  Madelie who had been waiting in the house for some thirty six hours.   Adriana looked more bruised than her selfie.  Time and a shower had softened the bulge of her eye and socket but the bruising was much more and multi-coloured from almost black through purple to ochre to cream.  Even a touch of green, it seemed to me.  It must have been a savage attack by her partner……ex-partner.  The settees were  much more comfortable and companionable than the station canteen!  And we each had a glass of something to hand.

At last!   The full story got rounded out by each of us following the time-line, as it were, from when  Adriana was first put into contact for the safe-house.

Most of it is scattered through these notes but those  missing pieces of jigsaw were of the following:

The mobile going dead in the middle of the second call to me.   Was she kidnapped?      Adriana found trapped in the signal box, how did she get there?  Who blocked her escape with the barrow?     How did she signal me from inside?

So much for solving mysteries!

Well, for the first.  It seems Adriana was very scared by that text he sent, saying she was being followed and then even more scared when she spoke to me, a wrong number, twice.  At that moment she realised she had a tracking app. on her mobile.   That was how he could follow her every move.  In sheer frustration she had thrown her mobile, mid-call across the tracks, co-incidentally as the express approached.  Her phone hit the train and, surprise surprise, it broke and killed the call.

Was she kidnapped?  A text and the event made it a serious possibility.     Nope!  Scared anyway, she ran down the platform, off the slope at the end and trackside.  We were all surprised she wasn’t seen and at least shouted at!  Anyway she reached the old signal box, saw the door ajar and ran inside to hide.

Who rammed the wheelbarrow against the door to stop her leaving?    No-one had any ideas.  Obviously someone, probably a passing railman but no idea at that moment.

So she was stuck there.  First of all hiding in fear then just unable to get out.

I had decided she had cleverly signalled to me and asked how she did it.      She hadn’t!  So us finding her was all down to Angel on a whim to search at the back of the hotel.

Where’s the clever solving of clues then?

And finally; it seemed she wasn’t being followed, chased, whatever.  The threats on the texts were just that.  All his texts were sent from the one place.  He had been taunting, not following.

At the end of all that talking there was little sense of satisfaction but maybe relief that it might have been so much worse.  So that was it, the evening broke up.

I was shown a room for the night, gratefully accepted. 

Finally, as I switched off the bedside light, I wondered if this visit to Burnthorpe would be my last.  “ Of all the places in all the world, how did I get here?”

 

 

 

 

 

from   ‘It Happened in Burnthorpe’                       copyright wordparc,  J Johnson Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Magazine Story

 

“……… And that, dear reader, was the beginning of the beginning!………”

 

The magazine made a lazy scrunching noise as I screwed it up then tossed it to the other end of the settee.  Even more annoying was it sliding off the cushion and onto the dog’s back. From a mildly twitching sleep she jumped onto all four legs before looking round and down at the runkled pages lying where she had been.  A baleful, accusing, look at me and she collapsed again with all four legs splayed out, snout flat on the floor and a heavy sigh. That was it!

Wouldn’t you have expected more of a reaction?  Not that the magazine was heavy, maybe the equivalent of a stiff pillow landing on your back when you are fast asleep  but even then the shock ought to be more than a look and a disappointed sigh.

Mind, I never got worse than that when the phone rang and I had to get up and go out, leaving the wife, when we should have been in bed playing about!    I suppose I should say ‘having sex’ but I always was old-fashioned.  Yes, I got too used to a look and a sigh.  So did she, I suppose, watching me leave in the middle of the night.  It got too regular.  Me always going rather than coming.

Then it did get worse.  She left.  I got home at ten in the morning after an extended shift all night.  A messy GBH, bit of a chase and then the interview and write-up.  By then I had been awake over twenty four hours and managed to say ‘hello’ before hauling myself upstairs and collapsing on the bed.   She called ‘Bye, I’m leaving’ up the stairs.  I didn’t even hear the door close.

You guessed it!  She was gone.  I woke mid-afternoon, stiff as a board, with the dog doing its deer-hound impression in a desperate attempt to get someone to open the door to get out.  Eventually I twigged and scrambled down to open the garden door.  Even more eventually I saw the note leaning against the kettle.   A very small scrap of paper with just one line written on it, the last word squeezed in and nearly falling over the edge.   I read it as I waited for the kettle to boil.    What do you do?     I read it again.  So short a note and no ifs or buts; gone!

All the emotions you would expect filtered through me, I won’t actually say them, use your imagination!  The problem was that I was due on shift again in three hours and still had a dog dropping toys at my feet trying to entice me into the garden to play.    It was okay for the dog having just relieved itself; it took no notice of my predicament.  Mind you it hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that I was now it’s benefactor.    It would have been more worried if it had realised sooner.

I read the brief one-line letter again.  You really ought to say more than ‘I’m leaving and won’t be back’, and that written on a torn-off strip two inches high.  Maybe that’s what I deserve.  We never had much quiet time.  Had!  Work eats into your life and there’s no life left!

I spent the next hour drinking more mugs of tea than I should, sliced some cheese, made some toast and broke it into a cheese sandwich.   The dog.  Can’t leave the dog all night on its own, haven’t even taken it for a walk.    Sod it!

I brushed the crumbs off my shirt, realised I was still in the same clothes I put on thirty-six-odd hours ago and looked at the phone. I didn’t dare ring her mobile.  I think I smelled of my own sweat, maybe the smell from the victims vomit hung around me too. The dog dropped the toy at my feet yet again and pleaded, eye to eye with me.

Resolutely I moved to the phone and rang the Station. We don’t have such a thing as HR just the Duty Sargent.  I rang him, spoke with a bit of a hitch in my voice and just garbled that the wife had walked out and I had to look after the dog until I could sort something out.

I relented over the dog and went into the garden.  It followed, pushed its way past me at the door and collapsed by the wall of the yard; looked at me from its prone position, eyes flickering between me and the ball it had let dribble out of its mouth.    We played for a few minutes.  I threw the ball onto a paving slab for it to bounce onto and off the yard wall at an angle for the dog to jump overly-excitedly and catch it.  Thud, bonk, scrabble.  Thud, bonk, scrabble.  And a third time.  Fourth time the dog just watched as the ball rebounded and bounced mildly on the slabs to a stop.    She sat on her haunches, looked at the ball and up at me.  A quick stick-out of her tongue and strolled back indoors.  Typical!

So, another satisfied customer.   At least it didn’t involve projectile vomit or handcuffs this time.

I followed the dog.

Back indoors, shift cancelled, dog played with, I had eaten; nothing for it but to watch television for an hour or maybe get the whisky bottle.  I should have gone to work.   No time to think there.   Always doing something even if only gossiping or catching up with ongoing crime.   Sorry, should call them cases these days, they are not crimes until CPS tells us to proceed and that only happens if all forensics are there; and on and on.  Even when they put their hands up it still has to hang around getting the paperwork certified.

I sat there like that.  Thinking.   Soaps were on, I couldn’t watch them without the wife being there.  They were her favourites, I usually just sat and half-watched.  That was good enough to follow the storylines until the police programmes at nine o’clock.    I stopped thinking and watched the dog wash its arse yet again.  That reminded me I still hadn’t showered but I couldn’t be bothered.  ‘Still too tired’ I thought to myself but knew it was more than that.

Maybe I was working too hard, rather, too often.  But there is always work to catch up, thieves or whatever’s to chase and officers off sick to cover for.  I can understand when they get hurt, that’s often enough, but all the buggers that claim tension or depression get my goat.  They should get up off their backsides and back on the job.  I do.  I work day after day, or rather night after night getting covered in sick or kicked or somesuch just like the others.  You put on a brave face, pretend to smile even if you haven’t slept a wink for days.   You have to be nice to the public,  positive with colleagues, always watching their back, your back.  My back!  What would it matter anyway.  There’s always some other sodding policeman to step in the gap when your down.

When I’m down?  I’m always down, always working, always angry or tired.   Both.   Poor girl, all she’s got for company is the bloody dog.   Looking at you all the time, trying to tell you something.  Always wants to be sitting beside you, head on your lap and pleading for sympathy.   Sympathy?   Who needs sympathy when you have to get up and be assaulted in the streets because you wear a uniform.   Stick to it.  Forget what the gov. says, and the doctors.  And look at today.  What am I worth?  A torn-off scrap of paper with not even a goodbye, just ‘I’m leaving’ .

It couldn’t be worse!  What happens now?  Self-pity is what I call it.  Depression they said but I don’t hold with it.

I sat there and saw the television screen glaze over and heard voices mangled.

Okay, I picked up the magazine, found the shortest story I could and forced myself to read it.

“One page:  cozy, girlie chat in a cafe. My goodness, where do they dig up these short stories!

It started off badly, surprise surprise! And then it frayed me at the edges as they started realising they were two peas in a pod, or some such rubbish and actually liked all the same stuff.   Within two thousand words they had moved from enemies to bosom-buddies about to house-share because of their mutual two-timing boyfriend!”

That’s how it finished; with the ‘beginning of the beginning….’.   And I crumbled the magazine and threw it and it fell onto the dog.    Okay, I admit it now, I sat there, misty-eyed, watching the dog settle again with its huge sigh.  I sat there.  Sat there.   Sat there in the now dark room for however long.

I never heard the front door open, no click disturbed my darkness.   A familiar hand ruffled my hair, a quick kiss on my balding spot.

“Hello love, shouldn’t you be at work?”

“I thought I would keep the dog company.”  I didn’t dare move or imagine, just fiddled with the note she had left me.   Folded it into a narrow strip and then again while she went upstairs.  Maybe to pack another bag?    I unfolded the note, flattened it on my knee.    I heard the toilet flush, tap run and then her feet on the stairs as I looked down at that unforgiving note.

..’..until really late, sorry, love you lots!’

She came into the room, ” I had to go and see Carol, she’s so upset! That husband of hers has left her.  It’s so good to get back here”. She sat heavily beside me, snuggled closer and grabbed my hand holding the note.

“Sorry it was on a scrappy piece,” she waved the hand she held, that held the note,  “it was the first bit I found in the drawer and I was in an awful rush, only just room even on both sides.”

The dog, intrigued by the waving hands with the fluttering piece of paper actually moved to sit in front of us and swayed her head sideways in its rhythm.  To me, she was shaking it in a,  “I told you not to panic”, mode.

I gently squeezed the hand that supported mine.

 

 

 

from   ‘It Happened in Burnthorpe’

 

 

Copper Man Turns to Gold

As I have said before, Burnthorpe is a small town of remarkable age with an old history of invasion and creation, followed by invasion and destruction and more to-ing and fro-ing through the Civil War.  Generations of competition as to who were the original settlers, which family surname survived or was  depleted by rank outsiders.

Enclosure had some effect and the early days of Industrialisation meant even closer ties between the outliers of weavers.  Following the advent of cotton mills in the region there was further thinning, or rather distribution, as those more desperate or adventurous moved away for work at those rising cotton factories.

The high hills around the town were scarps of chalk, remnants of the ocean life that covered the area millenniums ago. If you travelled a few miles away and a few hundred feet into those stiff hillsides through the white smokey chalk and flints you would have found the thin seam of coal.  Enough for a peasants winter fires.   Follow it vertically and the seam spread wider into a compressed forest.  Coal that was easy digging and firm enough to rouse local industry.

Water power as good as succumbed to steam except where the milling was fine or the engine housing could not be built on the weavers mill.  The farmers brought in static engines to their timber yards and steam tractor could plough a larger field in a day that might take a man and plough-horse five days.

So the town, with its occupants, ebbed and flowed like the sea, a just-visible line on the horizon from the hilltop.  Always there, always full of undercurrents, flotsam, jetsam and people trying to stay afloat.

The two churches stayed, emptying as the years rolled on. The Elizabethan inn remained, re-daubed and propped up on the old stable wall.  They did not demolish the stables in the yard, they just fell away. The narrow bricks finally crumbling back to their Dutch dust though the Elizabethan oak beams were usefully carried away to their final resting places as heavy mantelshelves, lintels over fireplaces, by an enterprising builder in the mid sixties.

New houses, a new area built almost as a giant lintel itself to support the old market town. Or more like a great balloon of houses with crescents galore sitting along the top line of a capital T and the original High Street the bole with short roots protruding at its base which were the original lanes and footpaths into the depths of the country.  Terraced houses wound up the hillside with their neatly tiled roofs  as a legacy from the early NIneteenth Century.  Always changed but never moved.

So what?

The Burnthorpe and District Local Historical Society was assembled in the large back room of the Jolly Puritan.  Busie Warboys, publican, sat on his high stool behind the bar and absent mindedly wiped the brass edging with a cloth while he listened to the meeting in progress.

The vicar sat back in his chair, cigarette in the fingers of the hand that his chin was resting on. The smoke from the tip of the cigarette curling up into his eyes and hair.  He blinked, shook the half inch ash onto the floor, took a final long draw and stubbed it vigorously into the  saucer by his pint glass.  He was there as a pillar of the society rather than for History, though the Civil War did have some attractions.

Madelie Carew sat beside Walter Copper, the policeman.  Both were regulars to the bar and sat in the meeting as a matter of politeness.  Busie now considered them a bit of an odd couple as they sat together whenever they were both in but never seemed to speak.  One bought the other a drink, the other passed money for a few choices on the juke box that was in the public bar but loud enough to seep into the back-room where they all now sat.

Angel came through the gap between the service area of the bars and collected four bottles of tonic water from the shelves behind the publican said feet.  He fidgeted them out of the way.

Angel looked across at the group and studiously avoided the eyes of Walter.   He was trying to decide if she was old enough to work behind the bar.  Vicar’s daughter or not, it might not be legal.  But then he knew she wasn’t drinking, Busie would see to that, so maybe just knowing where she was was enough.

The librarian continued talking, “So very little has happened in the last year.  We have re-visited the Danish Camp and done some more measurements to map out the site more fully.  There has been a request that we investigate the old timber yard. It was suggested that we might have an old charcoal burners camp there.”

“More like it is old Joe’s camp fire.”  Walter threw in the comment to break the rhythm more than be useful.

“Not exactly in the yard but up in the woods a bit. There is a small clearing that fits the criteria.”

“Is that where they did the training during the war?  I recall there was exercises all round there. Caused havoc with getting the timber out.”

“That was the 14-18 war?”  Queried the librarian.

“No, ’44, it was.  Mind you timber was a bit ropey anyway, only useful as logs, most of it.”  The gamekeeper, Sam Roach, was the fount of knowledge on his acreage, attending the meetings as a duty to his work and his employer.  Big, bluff and ruddy outdoor complexion he was a stalwart of the village.  The vicar, as the others did, knew him also as a deputy undertaker and pall-bearer.  Despite his size and strength when dressed in the sombre black of his second trade he was a symbol of consideration and care. In the fields he could wring a neck in the flick of a wrist but beside a grave his handshake wrought nothing but sincerity and consolation.

Several others sat in a half-circle set away from the main table, each man and woman a mainstay of the Society too, but as they lived in the new town and visited the Jolly Puritan only for such meetings they had felt honour-bound to take the outer seats.  Anyway, they were nearer the door so could make their excuses to leave when the business was done.

Last round the table was Lady Matilda, widow of the late estate owner……..SIr Mortimer  Rissome.  She was a loyal supporter of the Historical Society, especially where the research entailed  members traipsing across her acreage or entering the old estate church now seemingly buried in its own private copse of bramble and ivy.  And tonight it seemed the old timber yard was even considered particular in maybe having a remnant of charcoal burners.  “Hardly historic”, she thought of this last item.  She looked across fondly to the gamekeeper and was sure he would look out for the estate and herself. Then returned her mind to the librarians reporting voice.

“So we ought to continue writing up the results from the Danish Camp for the County Records and get together a group to investigate the charcoal burners site.”

“You might find it wuz gypsies”. Said a voice from the back row.

“Maybe, but no harm in checking the site.”  Replied the librarian, “A couple of us can volunteer to visit there.”

Lady Matilda closed her eyes briefly and sighed quietly.

“I will have a careful poke around if you like. Said Walter, realising too late his wording could have been better for the librarian, ” My beat takes me up there so an extra ten minutes ferreting about wont be missed”.  More errors in choice of language, maybe.  Heignored the warming glow spreading into his neck.   ” I will read up on it, and take notes.”   Hoping this would retrieve the situation for the librarian.

“Thanks, just a careful recce. then.  We can get a full group up there after you have reported back”

Matilda’s eyes closed briefly again to hide her heavenward look.

The meeting drew to its anticlimactic end.  The librarian replaced his briefcase, the outlanders called out cheery goodbyes as they slid out.  Sam Roach held the door open for Lady Matilda to follow her to the car in which he chauffeured her home and the librarian downed the last half of his beer and rushed out to get home in time for his radio programme.

“Last orders everyone. Get Busie busy for once” the vicar raised his voice and glass as a sign for refills and went to stand at the bar.  Busie pulled him a pint. Vicar dropped silver and copper coins onto the slop-mat.

“I’m off home.”  Said Madalie.

“I’ll do the same.” Said Walter. They both called goodnight as the door closed on them.

The Puritan, swinging on his sign above, one side with hand on a Bible, other side with hand firmly on a tankard, rocked gently and wondered when the young man and woman walking down the short steep to the road would start listening to each other.  He took a crafty pull from the tankard and tucked the Bible more firmly under his arm.

……………………..

PC Walter Copper called out for Joe as he rounded into the old yard.  Surprisingly Joe was not around so Walter abandoned his bike to the ground, called out again to no reply and so decided to wander into the trees in search of the charcoal-burners remains.

He followed the directions in his notebook from the recent meeting.  There was no need really as he had been there several times before to quiet the local youths having there late night party and bonfire.  Oddly enough, it seemed to have been exactly the same place as the old charcoal pit was alleged to be.    Looking around the black scarred circle, the bare earth with its tussocks scattered about and the few old logs was depressing enough. The beer bottles and a couple of the new seven pint beer tins, all empty, were scattered about. A few screwed up bags and paper plus a plentiful supply of cigarette butts complimented the scene.

“Charcoal burners aren’t what they used to be”, he tutted.  He had no real idea of what to look for but found the semi-clearing just into the woods they had talked of.  The big black circle that dipped into the ground had obviously had years of  fires in it but whether it was a slow burn, carefully stoked by watchful burners or just where years of men had kept themselves warm between cutting the war- timber, he had no idea.  Bits of rubbish spread even here and he collected some of the more obvious cartons and match boxes from the scattered area of undergrowth and threw them into the centre of the ash-black circle.

At the further end of the clearing, if you could call it that, he found three large stones sitting in the ground that reached knee height.  They were surrounded by tall wild ferns and lichen covered the tops and sides like thick velvet and only visible as he stood beside them and bent down to remove fern spores from his uniform trousers.  He stood straight, hands on hips and studied them.

Too large and heavy to be your average or just old gravestones.  Too small to match the towns symbolic large boulder at the end of the HIgh Street yet could be as old and as oddly placed. Three, close together would be a coincidence too far for dear old Mother Nature, he thought.

It’s not an outcrop. Not part of a building as far as he could judge.

He looked around for more. Parting the ferns with rustles and more spores clinging to the serge of his trousers.

‘Dammit’ he said, looking at the myriad of green spores clinging to his legs, bent down and tried to brush them off.  Bent lower as he found he had to pick them off, one by one.  He sat down on the end stone and twisted the nearest stalk out of his way, out of the ground. The first came easily so he pulled at another to get them away from his clothes, it too flicked out of the ground easily, the clump of root flinging the layer of loose mulch around.  One more cleared and he could sit and pick the green spots off his legs. With the confidence of previous success he grabbed two close stalks with both hands, fronds waving in his face and pulled mightily.  They flew out of the ground and the sudden release of their tension  flung him backwards.  The change of angle from shoulder to hip, the auto-countering reaction of his body and the lush deep padding of the slippery lichen surface sent him crashing onto the ground, face down onto stalks and fern leaves and all.

Your perspective changes quite radically when you are suddenly lying on your side.  In Walters case he could see the skeletons of curled ferns and the rising stems of this year’s growth.  To his surprise he even noticed a few ants progressing up one of them to the black aphids secreting at the branch of the leaf and a lone ant descending from them, clambering over the ascending ants with no thought that it might be vertically challenging.  He twisted onto his knees, mentally checked that he wasn’t hurt more than he was embarrassed.  Hesitated as to whether to grab at a stone to haul himself up or just push up off the ground. Looking to put his hands in a flat, cleanish place he picked at a small stone that dug into his palm.  ” Flint most likely”.

Walter could have moved his hand an inch or two but the complex of curiosity, a stubborn eccentricity as to why he should move one hand from his chosen spot (!) and the shape of the flint encouraged him to scrape at the dirty stone.  Determined, he took out his jack-knife and applied the tool for taking stones out of horses hoofs.  “One day I will learn what it is called, might even use it on a horse if the worst really happens,” he muttered as he prodded and scraped a hole round the seemingly growing flint.

He never minded the dirt on his knees or the scores of bobbed spores all over his uniform but looked around carefully before he stood up.  Shutting the tool away with a spring-snap and shoving it into his pocket, he then took out his handkerchief and wrapped the object.  It was blackened with the ingrained mulch and charcoal dust, the size of a large coin.  Convexed each side with caked mud and the size of a cartwheel penny.  Which was his guess as it was quite heavy but did not feel as solid as flint.  Checking that no one was watching, he stuffed the protected token into his tunic pocket.  A quick brush of his knees and he strolled back through the trees to the path and his bicycle.  Climbed on and pedalled on the road home. Whistling as he pedalled, returning the wave of the woman in her garden hanging washing out.

………………………..

At a special meeting of the Historical Society they all sat round the small table, tightly shoulder to shoulder so they could all get a clear view.

“It will have to go to the Coroner.”

“It’s a museum piece.” Confirmed the librarian.

“Where did you find it?” Asked Matilda.

“I was looking at the charcoal burner site.  Found by accident really.”

“So it was on the estate, then.”

“It will be in the report to the Coroner, I shouldn’t say more exactly in case people get wind of it.  It looked like a gathering of the clans up there with all the rubbish.”

“It’s the party-place.” Put in Angel from behind the bar. “Everyone goes there for a drink and a bash in the summer, most weekends anyway. ”

“I didn’t know that,” said Walter.

“Everyone else does.” Said the vicar.

Walter picked up the the object.  ” It was black with dirt.  I assumed it was an old copper coin. One of those large penny things you might get at a jumble sale.”  He turned it in his hand so the lights from the electric candles in the candelabra above their heads could catch the amber set in its centre. The insect inside seemed to wriggle a little at the movement.

“I washed it in the sink and thought it was some sort of copper clasp but that colour washed off as I rubbed it.  Well, shaving brush and soaped it.  Anyway, the green bits floated away and a bit more warm water finished up with this.”  He weighed it in his hand and they all looked harder, as if it had cleaned itself as he spoke.

“It’s not copper, its Viking gold”  said the librarian.  “I think it is a clasp for a cloak, that is why it is so big.  And when I looked at illustrations in the library I am certain it is a Viking design.  It looks Celtic but the dragons heads and twining round the stone are similar to confirmed Viking designs.”

“Is it worth much?”  Asked Matilda.

“In itself?  Maybe if it can be linked to a king or somebody particular. Obviously a few pounds but most importantly if it can be linked to Burnthorpe history in some way and not just a bit of lost property it will be valuable to the town”.

“Well, I suppose we will have to wait and see. Have a proper look at the site.”  Said Walter, putting the clasp back on the table.

“I can see the headlines now,” said Busie, ” local copper cleans up in Burnthorpe”

“Maybe: ‘Copper clasps gold at last’ ”

“Amber lights for golden copper”

“P.c’s copper becomes Viking gold”

“Copper turns up gold”

“Copper wants another drink!”  Walter picked up the clasp, stood and moved to the bar to forestall any more headlines.

……..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evening Star

He woke feeling with a slight ache in his lower spine, not unusual.  Opened his eyes and wriggled his face to erase the sleep from his skin and awaken some feeling into its surface.  Shifting his position slightly he rubbed the back of his hand into the eye sockets, pressing on the closed lids and stretching the skin round in a forlorn effort to remove their sticky itch.    The bracken under his back crackled as he moved, collapsing a little more in its dry, fragile state.  Dust rose invisibly in the dark of the night, creeping up surreptitiously to add the allergic itch in his eyes.

Joe dropped his hands onto his chest, lowered his head the few centimetres back onto the bracken    and exhaled tiredly.  He had slept, maybe a couple of hours.  The purple dusk had moved into a black night.  At least, he considered, he could assume it was very pre- dawn. Had there been some light he might have slept for only a minute or two or all night and into the early dawn, only waiting on time to give him the answer.   Still, he thought on, being obviously the middle of the night there was no other action to be taken except to get back to sleep until the sun was high.

He wriggled carefully again to shift his weight more onto a hip but kept his head turned a little to look at the night sky.  Pitch black. all around.  He yawned. His old army coat seemed to be keeping him warm enough. He could hear the light gusts of wind but where he lay was all stillness.  Cool maybe but he had been in enough colder places in his wanderings for this bed to be considered warm and comfortable.

His fingers fiddled with the brass button poking through the khaki coat’s button-hole on his chest. Thumb moving over the tarnished curve a few times.  Joe exhaled deeply again and tried to empty his mind, relax, close his eyes. Consciously relaxing muscles in his neck and shoulders as he counted his breath in and counting again as he exhaled, relaxing down into his bracken bed.  Closing his eyes, relaxed, tired, he breathed and counted.

The inky blackness of the night, lids closed and heavy, darkness smothering the optic nerves and his body relaxed, seemingly light, almost hovering on the piled bracken mattress.

chrysanhs pict

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Into the emptiness, his personal void, came the streaks and striations of colour.  Like startling cotton-threads of light, lightning, shooting and trailing through his brain to dissipate almost immediately.  Replaced by other threads and colours, like tracer lines randomly appearing and disappearing. The light-show, instantaneous or long seconds was engraved as he opened his eyes.  A slow-motion reflection while his eyes focused back into the dark. Joe inhaled deeply through nose and mouth, the cool air following the lining of his nostrils and throat and lungs.

The soft blackness of the night sky replaced the scattering threads. The weight of his head was noted by the muscles in his neck as he exhaled a sigh.  Joe focused into the distant cloudless sky straight above his head.  Far away, as far as his furthest dream, he saw the glimmer.   A last gentle rise and fall of his chest.  The star, galaxies away, blinked.

It was a voice, his name, an urgent bark, an urgent bark.  He screwed up his eyes, grimaced at the light aching into his lids. Joe raised a grubby hand and pressed the back of it into his eyebrows and opened his eyes, protected from the light by his hand.

“Oi, Joe, you awake?”

“Stupid question”, he muttered then called out, “Yes! Now!”

The dog barked several times and peered over the edge of the hole, it’s paws teetering impatiently on the edge of the pit, it’s head just visible.  Beside it was the head and shoulders of PC Copper.  He was lying on the damp grass peering down through the gap created by Joe as he had fallen.

Walter Copper could only guess at the depth. He could see the topsoil as it graded down into the chalk layer half way down and the white of the roughly hewn chalk-pit at its base roughly fifteen feet down. With just enough light from his prone position Walter could look down into the base of the pit and see Joe lying at the bottom.

“You look comfy.” He risked the comment.

“Yeah. Broke me neck comin’ down, otherwise I’m fine.”

“Neck?” The policeman shouted back down, more concerned.

“Me leck!  Landed on it badly.  Me left leck!”

His leg!

“I will radio the station and call out for some help, hang on!”

Joe shook his head, muttered under his breath and resigned himself to more time stuck down the hole.  The light now filtering down gave the space a glowing atmosphere. The lower half a bit like a small whitewashed cottage kitchen, more likely a miniature lighthouse as it was roughly circular.  A few dark lumps in the wall and assorted dents where flints hid or once were.

Finished on the radio, Walter called down, ” Did you know these chalk-pits are the most northerly we know?  You are probably the first man down there since  thousands of years, since Stone-age man was down there digging them flints out.  With mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers strutting about.  We know of others around here but not this one, there could be more close by, we will have to get the Society out.  There is supposed to be a stone-age settlement up at Longcross hill.”   He was interrupted.

“Shut up or bugger off!” Echoed from the bottom.

……………………………….

Two days later the rescued man, Joe, was sitting on his regular log outside the dilapidated sawmill shed in the plantation.  PC Walter Copper scooted from the path into the clearing on  his bike and dismounted. “HI Joe.”

“Tea?”

Walter was surprised to be offered tea from a large Thermos flask, plastic cup still firmly screwed on.  Joe leaned over and placed it on the ground closer to where Walter had stopped.

“Vicar’s daughter brought it a few minutes ago. And the sandwiches. Cheese and onion.”  Joe pointed down briefly.  At his feet was a brown paper bag flat on the ground, it’s contents now neatly piled on top of it.  Five of the six slices of door-stop sandwiches ready to be dealt with. The sixth a last mouthful for Joe as Walter arrived..

“I heard you stayed there a couple of nights. How’s the leg?”

“Not broken.  Doc said it was only a twisted knee. Vicar insisted I stayed at theirs as the hospital chucked me out.  The one night drove me barmy so I shifted out at first light.  Vicar lent me his walking stick and one or other of ’em keeps bringing me this stuff”. He waved vaguely at the flask.

“Can’t stand the tea but the sarnies are tasty”

Walter decided to trust the tea in the flask more than the alternative he might be offered from the billy-can steaming on its hook over Joe’s fire.  He sat on the nearby log, leaned to grasp the flask and settled back to pour and drink a cup of the steaming, milky, slightly not-quite-right tea.   Thermos tea never tasted like it should but Walter was used to flask tea.  Anyway it would be a shame to waste the Vicar’s good nature, or whoever made it for Joe.

“Just thought I would stop as I was passing. See if you are doing all right.”

Joe raised a sandwich in acknowledgement, hesitated as he put it to his mouth and took out a chunk of the cheese. He held it in Walter’s direction and threw it towards him. It landed just passed the policeman’s boots.  The dog, Rusty, scrabbled out from under the half-toppled platform, sat before the piece of cheese then delicately sniffed, picked up and ate it.  Licking its lips it looked up at Walter, mouth open in a half-smile and toungue lolling.

“Good dog, good Rusty”,  said PC Copper, ruffling the dogs head and ears.  Joe threw a quarter slice of bread that landed  on the policeman’s shiny toecap.   Once again the dog delicately sniffed the food. This time she knocked it off his shoe with her paw then picked up the bread and with head held high chewed it with obvious relish. To return to her half smiling observation of the policeman.

“She came and fetched me, you know.  Barked at me. To’ed and fro’ed in circles. Annoyed me like hell to follow her.  I was down the road here but it was quite a way to where you were.  Your dog must be as good, maybe better than any police dog.”      Walter fondled the dogs head again.

“She’s not my dog. Just tags along.”   Joe threw a slice of onion at Walters feet, it scattered into decreasing circles as it bounced on the compacted soil.   The dog moved to it and scooped them casually up and retreated to its shelter under the platform where it proceeded to sniff and nibble at the onion rings.

“Well, maybe she thinks she is. Or maybe you belong to her and she doesn’t want to lose you.”

Joe grunted through a sandwich at his mouth.

“Best be off,” Walter replaced the empty cup on the flask, replaced the helmet on his head. Stood up and adjusted his radio, ensuring it was still switched on, adjusted his cycle clips.

“Mind that knee. You’re looking better today.  I will try to pop round tomorrow if I am on this beat again, should be  but Winnie is off so I might have to stay at the station.”

“WInnie? WInston Churchill, here?  Met him in ’42, gave him what for.  Tell him he interferes too much!   Good bloke though.”

“Not Churchill, Winnie Maitland, our new WPC”. He shouted behind him as he cycled down the drive and round the corner, back to the police station at Burnthorpe

“Oh.”  Grunted Joe as he threw a piece of crust dogward.

Copper gets Rusty

 

The morning was a glorious mixture of early autumn that was offering a portent of winter.
The air as still as high summer but the sun glinted low in the horizon and shimmered over the edges of frost on the long grass. A few days ago it would have been dew, drying in the warming sun, a bubble reflecting the colours of the rainbow but this morning their hard edges glittered just before they slid to the base of the stalk.

“Morning Joe.”
“Yeah.”
“Getting chilly now Old Jack Frost is poking about.”

PC Copper looked down at the huddled man and waited a good few seconds for a response. The man sitting on an old pine log remained silent as he leaned over the small fire he was tending. It was set between a triangle of three roughly equal stones and as both men watched, the flames pushed through the smoke of the damper twigs that had been laid over the original tinder.

“Looks like you’ve got it.”

“Yeah”, responded Joe, still not looking up but adding some more twigs in criss-cross fashion and finally a full set around the fire as a low cart-wheel. Smoke returned but was soon outpaced by flame and the fire was established.

Both men looked on with satisfaction.

“Cuppa?” asked Joe and lifted the small aluminium pan and settled it onto the stones.

Walter looked into it, the water looked clean but the inside of the pot was scarred with burnt remains. “Tempting but I am due back at the station and Molly gets annoyed if she can’t sell me a mug and biscuit.”

Joe said nothing.

“Getting chilly at night, I reckon. Out here in the open”. PC Walter Copper looked round the ground of the now disused timber yard.

“Got me bivvy,” he nodded backwards at the pile of timbers beside him. “an’ me dog.”

Walter looked to the half collapsed building. It was less than that, it was originally a rough-built three sided shed with a few timbers across the roof and some corrugated iron sheets nailed topside to keep the weather out. “Not seen your dog, where is it?”

“She’s away. Cuppa?”

“No thanks.”

During the war this little yard had been hastily set up as a sawmill and timber yard by the owner of the forest. It was a rough mile outside the streets of Burnthorpe but the lane it was on crescented from the end of his beat back to the start and as there were a couple of dilapidated buildings and some well used stopping places for couples to park in, Walter would sometimes use the route, especially knowing Joe was currently in residence. Twice a year, late spring and late summer a small community of gipsy caravans would also appear briefly en-route or return from Appleby. The first to arrive and leave was their original Romany caravan with its horse nobly but slowly pulling up the hill, its occupants walking alongside with arms on the frame giving small but noticeable help over the rough edges of the guttered single width lane. A colt or two, maybe a filly tagged on behind, lead reins knotted to eyebolts at the rear. The oldest youth, boy or girl, would be astride a final horse with two or yearlings, horses or ponies trailing behind for the horse fair.

This day Joe was the only one Walter could find in residence and the conversation was mostly one way. Joe was no gypsy or tinker but one of the unsettled after the Second World War, or rather after the Korean War. He had been recalled for the latter, had seen some desperate times. Finally pensioned off and back in Civvy Street he was first unsettled then unable to stay in one place, inside or out, for more than a few days. He had grown peripatetic and after ten years had found an unusual sense of peace in what had become a circular tour around the fringes of villages and towns in the county, stopping and setting a bivouac among disused works, the gardens of abandoned grand houses. Almost anywhere where people had been but had now abandoned.

“Is it draughty in there?” Walter looked across and into the back of the broken-down shed. The large rusted high-toothed wheel sat in its grimed shackles, cemented in by ridges of rust and compacted sawdust. The bench it was fixed to was outside to the right of the shed and a belt underneath, rotting but still clinging together led from the gear wheels into the shed where it twisted over and round the wheel of its petrol powered motor, hidden in the shadow, lost to its own memories.

“If it’s windy.” Joe stirred the water in the pan with a nearby stick. As it boiled he poured some water over the old tea-leaves in his enamelled cup. With the pan back on the fire he carefully dropped a couple of eggs into it and stirred the cup again.

“Cuppa?”. He asked, proffering the still writhing tea-leaved cup.

“No thanks. Gotta get back to the station, Molly’s waiting on me.”

PC Copper retrieved his bike from where it had been leaning against an old platform stacked with empty petrol drums and logs the length of pit-props carefully saved by the last of the workmen, some fifteen years ago. The platform front edge was set on brick piles about eighteen inches off the ground, the rear on one layer of bricks, just enough to level it compared to the drop in the ground at that edge. He straightened the handlebars, set a pedal to its low point, put his left foot on it and scooted over the mud to the road.

With a “See you, Joe”, he scooted faster and circled his leg over the saddle, found the opposite pedal and sat down on the wide saddle. He got into the rhythm of pedalling, settled his backside more comfortably and set about getting the heavy bike back to the Police Station.

police lampInside the Station, the desk Sergeant looked up as Walter was about to walk past. “Anything happening?”

“No Sergeant, all quiet.”
“No wonder, your radio is off again!” The sergeant was exasperated, ” Switch it on! One more failure and I will have to log it. I will be pleased to do it, you will not!”

PC Copper, Walter, immediately pushed the switch on the hand piece and then on the battery pack. The static buzz and over it the squawk of a radio officer contacting men on the beat added to the tension by the front desk. Walter sighed inwardly and went to walk away.

“Wait. Your messages, Copper!”

Walter turned back to the sergeant and was given a pad sheet with name, address and complaint, in that order.

“Third one this week. You’ve spoken to the first two? ”

“Yes, Sarg. Nothing seen, no clues. It was windy, maybe that was it. Or kids. Most likely kids and I have heard nothing.”
“Yes, especially on your radio.”

Walter stopped, listened briefly for the quiet crackle of his radio and heard nothing. Sighing inwardly he put a hand down to the box on his belt, pushed the switch again and immediately was shouted at by the receiver hooked into his breast pocket.
“1249, will you answer this blessed thing or we have to assume you’re dead or missing!”
Looking at the Sergeant, PC 1249, Copper, held the button down and answered sheepishly. After a brief but heavy admonishment of his silence he was told, ” Your beat again. This is the fourth time, second today. Go to Rita Rankin, Alwyn’s Cottage. And keep your so and so radio switched on.”

The note in his hand had an address, name and the words: ‘ stolen washing – again.’ This address was near the turning point of the beat he had just returned from and Alwyn’s Cottage almost a stone’s throw from it too. He decided that as he had not sat down, as he still had his cycle clips on he might as well go back up the road and Vicarage Lane and cut through the churchyard to the bridle path and join the road by the house of the earlier theft and then trundle on to Alwyn’s. Trusting someone would still be there and not too irritated. He briefly wondered if the children at both houses were having some sort of washing war either against each other or jointly against their mothers. He really didn’t want to be running all over the town because of children’s pranks.
The sun had moved higher by the time he reached the first house and the cycling pleasant enough up to and through the churchyard, the bridle path was uncomfortable so he stood on the pedals as he cycled. As feared, Mrs Shanks was out. She had called very early in the morning from the phone box near her house. Had he listened to his radio he would have been able to visit her early on his initial rounds. But then he would still be going back again for this second call. The incline was slight but the road quite long and he was relieved to get to Alwyn’s Cottage and find Rita Rankin looking out of her cottage window.
She saw him, waved and gestured at her door and disappeared. Reappeared at the opening front door as he pushed his bike up the short gravel path.

‘Lean it against that rose-bush. Come in. I thought you were the postman, Reggie usually arrives about now and stops for a cuppa. Kettle is on, you’ll have some? Into the kitchen with you. Leave the door, Reg will just come in.’

The heavy bike sank into the rose bush, almost lying on the ground with the thorned branches springing out from behind the frame, pedals and wheels. Walter wished he hadn’t followed her directions but politely followed her into the kitchen. He also considered if Reggie the postman could be the culprit, sticking whatever got taken into his big canvas bag as he passed through. He probably went round all the houses that had reported the clothes missing. Maybe he was a Peeping Tom too? If it wasn’t him, maybe he had seen something. Walter stopped thinking when he was offered the mug of tea and asked if he wanted sugar.

“Yoohoo! Only me, hope the pot’s still hot” called a high pitched female voice.

“Just made, Reggie, mind the bike.”

A thin, frail looking woman in well worn Postal uniform came non too gently into the room, thudding her canvas bag on the floor. ‘It’s your bike then,’ she said to Walter, ‘ MIne’s on top of yours, you might have a bother picking it up, it looks heavy. Life-saver, this tea, always is, thanks dear,’ she said to Rita.

Walter raised his cup and they sipped in almost unison. He doubted if this postie would do any thieving of any sort, let alone clean washing. He had seen her with bag and bike round the old town and its outskirts many a time. They had literally passed each with a nod and a brief ‘morning’ or whatever. Sometimes it was as if they played tag as she would catch him up, overtake then stop to deliver a few letters then maybe catch him again before repeating with more deliveries. Neither had spoken much as they met, no need. She had been a land girl in 1943 and had never left the village. He had been born in Burnthorpe, grew up there, left and now returned and so their paths had kept crossing over the years but no real conversation ever occurred. He had never heard her name either.
“He’s after me knickers, Reggie,” Rita indicated with her cup of tea at Walter.
“Really?” she joined in with a smile, “Does he know where to look? Anyway, I thought you lost them a few days ago” Neither woman looked at Walter, trying to decide how far they could tease him before the young man got annoyed.

“I lost more last week, a bra and a pinny, both at the same time. Now it’s happened again!”

“Well, I suppose you’ve got nothing to wear now!” And both women burbled into their tea cups as P.C. Copper tried to keep an official straight face and allow the joking to subside. He replaced cup into saucer.
“It’s that I’ve come to talk about.”
‘It’s not talk, it’s action, she needs.” Cooed Reggie, then she was slapped on the knee by Rita and both women creased a little as they stifled a laugh by leaning forward, heads neatly touching before they sat up and settled their faces.

“Okay, we’ve had our little laugh, you had better get on with it now.” Rita smiled, slightly remorsfully as she spoke. Reggie suppressed a quick giggle but raised her cup to drink and hide the noise by slurping her tea.
PC Copper took out his notebook, switched off his radio and proceeded to ask his questions. When, what and any idea who or why.

The nub being just after or during hanging out the wet washing, early mornings. Pinafore and brassiere had been taken off the line, she thought and she knew her knickers had been removed from the washing basket on the grass as she had gone in doors to get more pegs and then put the kettle on the gas for a cup of tea. When she went out again she noticed they were gone, and the basket looked as though it had been rummaged.

“Rummaged?” Walter spoke, trying to decide if this would look official enough if he wrote it in the notebook. Reggie took another, quick swig at an empty cup.

“That’s right, all over the place, and two of me best knickers were gone.”

“Two?”

“Me new red ones, but I’m not having to describe ’em surely?” Rita wanted to draw a line at this point.

Walter reassured her but said she might have to identify them if they were found. No comment from Rita, Reggie managed to be still this time.

“And have you seen anyone around, acting strangely?”

“In the bushes you mean?” Snorted Reggie, “Sorry, it’s not funny, sorry.” She clasped her hands in her serge uniformed lap and composed herself.

“Only that tramp chap camping up the yard. He is not that odd really. Stays up there for a couple of weeks, moves on and returns whenever it is. Harmless.”

“Joe.” Walter wrote it down.

“Yes, he always gives me a wave if he sees me. If I am walking he asks if I have any post for him. I assume he is joking but he doesn’t sound like it. Or offers me a ‘cuppa’ but I usually stop here and have one with Rita if we have the time.” She looked across and their eyes met briefly in confirmation.

” I think he goes for a walk round about most days, he might have seen something. Goes down the farm and begs or steals eggs and milk sometimes. The farmer lets him take a bottle of milk from the churns he leaves out for the dairy lorry. I know he leaves him an empty bottle or two and eggs if he is at his camp. I will have a chat with him, he might know something.”

Walter tucked his notebook into his tunic pocket after hoicking the coiled wire of his radio out of the way. Stood and took his leave of the ladies, Rita Rankin, and, remembering just in time that she was Reggie, Regina Ward. Amazing, after years of nodding and casual greetings he had never known her name, well he did now.

Outside he had to untangle Reggie’s bike first then his from the rose bush. Between them they had flattened the briars and knocked off a few thorns but he hoped the late buds were undamaged, or at least capable of hanging on there until he left. Bumping down the steps of the path to the front gap, keeping the bike angled so the pedal missed his ankle as he walked, he decided to go and visit Joe again. If he was there he could have a chat and if he was away it would do no harm in having a nose around just in case there was anything to find. He doubted, he hoped, he would find nothing, but just in case the sergeant asked…….
“What’s this, you come for lunch?” Shouted Joe as Walter freewheeled into the old yard, braked and enthusiastically swung his leg over the saddle and scooted to a stop. ” You can have a cuppa! Want a cuppa?” He leaned forward and used his stick to stir the water in the old saucepan.

“No thanks, Joe, had one down the road, at Alwyn’s Cottage.”

“Oh,” was the response. He looked a little disappointed, maybe wary, thought Walter.

Walter decided he should be in ‘official mode’ this visit so declined the offer of the upturned log beside Joe and opted to stand near the layered pile of unwanted drums and pit-props on the platform. He cast his eyes round the site, nothing obviously lying around. He ought to look in the shed, behind the tarpaulin which Joe slept and or sheltered behind but he would have a chat first, he thought.

“Wasn’t you here this morning?” Queried Joe. He poured some of the boiling water into his enamel mug to re-use the tea leaves and put the pan back on the stones, over the fire. He tucked some pieces of wood into the fire to keep it burning well then dropped two eggs into still boiling water. The water calmed, a small stream of white drifted out of an eggshell and solidified as the heat regained control and the water started to bubble again.

PC Copper watched, his feet angled downwards on the slope of the ground. Not the best of places to have chosen, he realised. The platform was raised at the front edge on now flakey piles to keep it level and the ground sloped down quite steeply for a couple of yards until it flattened out at Joe’s fire and seating area.

Joe stirred his tea with the handy stick and reached back for a milk bottle perched on the flat top of an old tree stump and poured some into the still swirling liquid. Walter could see the remnants of the tea leaves circling even from that distance and was pleased he had turned down the offer of tea.

“Dog’s back”, said Joe, put down the mug and started the job of hooking the eggs out of the boiling water by tipping the saucepan a little and then adroitly using a branched twig like chopsticks. Both eggs on a piece of cloth by his feet he then topped up his tea with a drop of the water. This time he put the saucepan on the ground beside him.

“Cuppa tea?” He asked kindly having forgotten the previous rejections.

“Joe, there’s been complaints, well, thieving really”.

“Nope! Wer’n’t me. Farmer lets me have milk and some eggs when ‘e leaves ’em out. Eggs and bottles, like”.

“I don’t think it was you but I might have to look round your things, and this place, just so I can tell my sergeant I looked. You know how they can be.”

“I am one, I know how I can be. Is he the same as me? Look all you like, me kits as tidy as you like. Boiled egg?” He had started picking off the shells, daintily wiping bits that stuck to his fingers onto his trousers.

‘No, thanks, had something down at the Cottage.”

“Alwyn’s? She waved at me this morning, just before you arrived first time. Me dog had gone off. Then you arrived here for a cuppa. Then me dog came back. She’s a good girl, good girl.” Joe bit carefully into the egg, eating it fully de-shelled and watching out for yolk escaping through cracks. That gone, he repeated the exercise with the second egg.

Walter’s ankles hurt standing on the sloping ground, waiting, too polite to ask his questions or search the broken down shed without asking first. He remembered that his radio was still switched off and looked down for the switch. The wires had come adrift from the battery at his waist so he decided to sit down to fix it. The edge of the platform behind him had plenty of gap so he took a quick step to it, swivelled and sat heavily on its edge.

He immediately felt the wood of the platform and the sudden cracking noise instantly followed by a crunching of rubble and wood mixed with his feet slipping forward as his shoulders jerked backwards and his whole body went down. Only about a foot but the surprise as his bottom fell and then hit the collapsed planking again, jarring his spine against the pit-prop logs behind him. He was left with his knees crumpled up near his face as the angle had so suddenly changed, trying to decide if he was hurt by the experience. Trying to decide if the howling was his own, or Joe’s.

Joe rushed over, ignored Walter in his uncomfortable squatting position and knelt at the opposite corner of the now angled platform, peering into the darkness. Walter looked over and could hear Joe mumbling under the staging but it was made indistinct by a part cry, part howl from underneath the platform. Walter rearranged his feet and legs, stood up, reassured himself of no ill-effects and hurried to Joe at the other end of the platform.

He knelt beside him, lowered his head to look under the boarding as Joe was.

The noise was more intermittent, Walter recognized it now as the sound of a dog in distress. Maybe hurt, maybe trapped in the back, lower corner of the now part-collapsed platform.

“It’s me dog, she always goes under there. Eats and sleeps there if she is not sitting on me feet.”

They both listened to the dog, quieter now, calmer when Joe called out. Peering into the sloping gloom they could just see her muzzle and brief reflection from her eyes when she moved her head. But she could not move towards them. They saw her struggle a little but then stop.

“She must be stuck. You’ve got to go under and help her.” Joe grabbed Walter’s shoulder as he spoke, “I can’t go in there, I can’t. You’ve got to save her, please, please.” By this time Joe was holding on to Walter with both hands, voice pleading and almost tearful.

Walter’s shoulders sagged a little as he sighed. He was aware of his duty, he supposed, just that a dog rescue would not rank highly on the heroic scale. Also, it looked pretty mucky and weedy under there, goodness know what it would do to his uniform.

He removed Joe’s still shaking hands from his sleeves and stood up. Rather pointlessly he brushed at the knees of his trousers, “I’ll get a torch,” and walked over to his bike, his saddlebag, removed the torch and checked that it still worked then walked disconsolately back to Joe, the broken platform and his duty.

He knelt at the gap, had to lie on his stomach and crawl to get in. He had done this once or twice in training but it was even worse now. Dirt, dead weeds, cobwebs – assorted sizes – chunks of stone, paper and leaves blown in over the years. Underneath him, as he crawled with the platform above getting lower and lower, was the watery earth, mud, scraping into his uniform, belt and radio. The dog watched him, it’s face turning into a shade of ginger with green eyes as the torch flashed over it. He stopped a few feet away, just out of arms length. The dog lolled its tongue out and panted, stretched head forward a little to sniff at this odd stranger approaching.

“What’s the dog’s name?” PC Copper shouted, moving his head and thumping it on the boards above. He returned to the dog, “Come on girl, let me help.”

“Rusty! Good girl. Come Rusty! Come to Joe! Here girl!” Replied Joe.

The dog did a couple of low, short barks, more like harruffs in Walters direction and started to crawl forward. She inched forward and Walter called to Joe again, “Keep calling.” And to the dog, “Here girl, it’s all right, go to Joe.”

The dog reached Walter’s hands and started licking them; Joe called again and the dog, Rusty, stopped and looked in the direction of the voice. Walter could hear the tail wagging, “Keep calling, Joe.”

Joe, just a few feet away called out again, “Come here Rusty, come and have a cuppa, come on girl!”

Encouraged, the dog moved forward again but hesitated and stopped. The beam of the torch showed the hind leg was caught in some string or tape, he could just make out that it was wrapped round the leg, possibly the other, which would explain why the dog found it difficult to move. The beam of the torch faded to a glow. He left it on the earth and reached forward with both hands to free the dog leg. With a little yelping, wriggling and licking from the dog he felt his way to pull the tapes of material from off the dog. Part unwinding, part pulling and a lot of fumbling in the grey gloom allowed the dog to scrabble forwards, passed Walter’s prone body, towards Joe’s voice and his upturned head as he peered and called coaxingly.

As the dog crawled and bobbed her way passed Walter it still had one leg knotted into the material. He grabbed a piece at it went passed. It stayed in his hand as the dog progressed. Walter heard the cheery, relieved greeting of man for his dog and started to crawl backwards to escape the claustrophobic roof on his head. Dim torch in his left hand, feeling himself turning, crablike to get his head into the daylight first, he made a tortuous journey back. En route he collected the discards from around Rusty’s legs.

Crawling out, kneeling and looking down at his uniform, his heart really sank. He picked off the leaves trapped by his belt and looked at the accumulation of several years now staining the front of his tunic. Many shades of dust, grey and muddy smears down sleeves and front and trousers to match with especially muddied knees, right down to big scuffs on the toes of his police boots.
Joe walked back to his log-seat and shared his remaining mug of tea with a tail-wagging Rusty.

PC Walter Copper walked back to his bicycle and replaced the torch, then stuffed the remnants that had been twisted round the legs of Rusty. The reasons why she had been trapped when the platform collapsed. He had noticed the coloured materials, like a nest, at the back of the platform. It had been a safe height for the dog to snuggle into before the brick piles at the front had collapsed… Before Walter had sat on the unsafe front edge…..before his extra weight caused the crumbling support to finally give up.

As he tucked them away, Walter did not expect Rita would want the pinafore and bra returned, he certainly would not go back for the knickers but felt honour-bound to take what he had collected to the Station. He assumed the other clothes were there too but he was in no hurry to look.

At least he had an explanation, could sign off on a few minor incidents, well, thefts, he supposed. All he had to worry about now was telling it all to the Sergeant and the ladies, about their disappearing washing. And his dirty uniform and getting Rusty.

He pushed his bike to the road, stiffly mounted it and cycled off. No word to Joe who was otherwise happily occupied. Walter never noticed that the coiled cable from radio to battery was no longer there, pulled off in his adventure. Cycling slowly back down the lane he was able to appreciate the quiet of it all, the expanse of fresh air around him and the sun dappling through the branches with their few remaining autumnal leaves and nearly warming his wet knees.

 

see also tags     Burnthorpe    Copper Man

Angel Lamb

“It’s so easy when there is something you want, just press the ‘confidence’ button and off you go.  It’s always been like that though I usually push the button when I don’t really know what to do.  Or say.  I just let it burst out, I suppose.”

She stared back at the dog-eyes.  Chocolate brown with black centres and a thin whirl of white at the edges.  As she stopped talking the dog cocked it’s head by fifteen degrees and grinned slightly.

“More eh?” she ruffled the wiry hair of the terrier and it swayed it’s head to the opposite angle, kept its grin and lolled a tip of tongue out between its canines. “That’s it, really.  He was just an exciting looking bloke.  Never met him before. Talked to me, asked about me, made me laugh.  Had a couple of drinks.  Said he would walk me home.  Outside, when the air hit me, I just lost it.”

She lent forward and put her hands round the dog’s head, rocked it gently and stroked, massaged, round the dog ears.  Leaned closer and whispered as her cheek brushed the soft jowls.

“It got crazy, all those colours whirling round me, I thought I was walking on the ceiling.  All those women coming at me, trying to take my clothes off.  You know, those mannequin things, all acting like scary puppets.  I was burning, just letting them. Their hands all over me.  You know, it was like I was on heat.  Jeeze, never felt it like that before.  So good, so scary, I was just shaking. ”

“I know what you mean.” replied the dog silently.

“Dad said he found me and walked me home. I know it was a long night and I kept having awful strange dreams. Mum said she put me to bed with a struggle and had to sit with me for hours keeping me in my room and trying to calm me down.”  She sat back on the big square cushion of the big square settee. “Mum told me what was happening when he found me. Dad hasn’t, thank goodness.”

Angel hoicked her legs up onto the settee and the dog licked at the frayed line of the denim shorts.  The girl pushed his head away with a moan at the warm, damp tickle and scratched under his chin to keep him off.  “Trouble is, I remember bits like a dream. Like the man slobbering over me, unless it was me being loopy, and the shop and all those people looking at me, from inside the windows. ”

She hugged herself.  “And that policeman shining his torch on me, well, us”.  Hugging more tightly as she remembered the anger of the moment but felt again the flush of embarrassment as the man had relinquished his place and scuttled away.  She could have been hidden, protected from view had he stayed but once she spoke, (she recalled yet again) saying she knew the policeman, he recoiled away from her.

She remembered almost collapsing against the door and the rattle of the chain-lock inside as the door juddered with the surprise of her weight.  The light from the torch had stabbed at her eyes and how the spotlights of the shop joined-in making white globes in her vision as she tried to look into the dark of the road at Walter.  Briefly she was aware of what had almost happened, maybe had, through the buzz of the lights and the noise of the dolls and the man she was with.  And the embarrassing ridge of dress round her waist.

Angel had needed to escape the light, the haze; her numb, brightly lit brain and the heat and itch of her body.  So she looked at the policeman as she dragged at her hem then hurried away with her best daring, defiant, teenage glare at the young man dressed like a policeman with strange white blobs glowing round his head.

And here she was, Angel Lamb, talking to the dog, remembering chunks of the evening up to when she had been whiskedinto the house from the Vicarage gate and into bed by her mother.  A night that still reared and flashed in her dreams. She had spoken to Walter the following day.  Repeating, “P.C. Walter Copper”, she smiled and shook her head slightly at the thought of him discovering what was going on.  Dear Old Walter.  Not that he was, but he was, sort of, compared to her. Several years makes all the difference.  But at least he hadn’t said a word to her father.  He might be a vicar but she knew he could get angry and she couldn’t bear it if he knew the truth.  Even if she didn’t, really, of what happened.

She coiled fingers gently into the hair of the dog. “It’s bad he died though.  He must have had even more to drink than I had.  And I can’t even remember his name.”

The dog raised its muzzle and snuffled into her face with wet nose and tongue licking at the salty cheeks. “Oough! That’s too much.”  She shut her eyes and the white globes appeared briefly, like will-o-the-wisps, before fading once again.

 

 

notes from Burnthorpe

Copper Man, Jolly Puritan